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A prime-time party for next Xbox

With an infomercial straightforwardly titled "The Next Generation Xbox Revealed," Microsoft is bucking the game industry's tradition of rolling out new wares at the Electronic Entertainment Expo trade show, kicking off in Los Angeles next week.
/ Source: a href="http://www.washingtonpost.com/wp-srv/front.htm" linktype="External" resizable="true" status="true" scrollbars="true">The Washington Post</a

Is the world ready for the next Xbox?

Tune in to MTV tonight and decide for yourself, as Microsoft shows off its next video-game machine in a prime-time program hosted by erstwhile hobbit Elijah Wood, of "Lord of the Rings" fame, and starring musical acts the Killers and Snow Patrol.

With a show straightforwardly titled "The Next Generation Xbox Revealed," Microsoft is bucking the game industry's tradition of rolling out new wares at the Electronic Entertainment Expo trade show, kicking off in Los Angeles next week.

The next Xbox may be the world's first video-game console to introduce itself to the world in a half-hour infomercial, scheduled to air at 9:30 p.m. The gimmick might also be the latest sign of how thoroughly video games have entered mainstream culture.

Microsoft would not confirm ahead of showtime when its new machine will arrive in stores, though MTV's listing for the show said it will contain "trailers of the newest games that are due out in November for the new Xbox."

With this gambit, the software giant has managed to dominate much of the buzz in the video-game world this year leading up to the E3 trade show. Gamer Web sites have posted and pored over photographs of a slick, white box that could be the next Xbox; rivals Sony and Nintendo, meanwhile, are keeping mum about their plans for the next generation of video-game players, and many analysts said they don't expect new machines from those two this year.

It's a far cry from five years ago, when gamers snickered at the thought of Microsoft getting into the video-game market. Now the software giant holds a solid number two position in the U.S. market, behind Sony, and is widely credited with bringing the computer hard drive to family-room play -- boosting game richness and depth to new levels.

Seamus Blackley, the man who helped design the original Xbox, said yesterday that the thought of Microsoft getting into the video-game machine business once seemed outlandish.

"At the time it was this bizarre idea that Microsoft would be in video games," he said. "Now it just seems like a natural."

Now a broker
Blackley is now an agent for Creative Artists Agency, working as a broker between game developers and publishers and movie studios.

Some game industry watchers figure Microsoft's MTV show is an attempt to broaden the market appeal for the next Xbox beyond its young male base.

"This is part of the war for the untapped audience," said Ankarino Lara, director of gamer Web site GameSpot.

With the next Xbox's anticipated launch in November, Microsoft would be putting the lifespan of its Xbox at four years. Rival machines have typically lasted five years on the market; at last year's E3, Sony talked to game developers about the PlayStation 2 having a lifespan that could reach a decade before it is no longer commercially viable as a technology platform to make games for.

Video-game machine manufacturers and game makers alike would generally prefer a longer lifespan for consoles; research and development for new machines can cost billions of dollars. In the first years of a console's life, its maker typically loses money on each machine sold in the hopes of making up that money in profits and royalties from game sales.

If Microsoft releases its XBox successor this year, as expected, some analysts say the company could be trying to grab the "first mover advantage" from Sony, which released its PS2 a year or so before the first Xbox.

Michael Gartenberg, analyst at research firm Jupiter, thinks that fear of again having to play catch-up with Sony may have prompted the company to make an early move.

"Microsoft, in its heart of hearts, thinks it did not do better because Sony had had an 18-month window of opportunity over them, regardless of whether that's the case or not," he said.

The first mover does not always have an advantage in the video-game machine market, he said, listing examples of "first movers" that failed, dating from the days of 1980s systems from Atari up to Sega Dreamcast, a console released in 1999.

No 'giant technological advance'
Though the MTV-watching world will soon find out what Microsoft has in store for its next generation, even Xbox's founder Blackley said that the next generation of video games "will see a more incremental increase in technological wizardry compared to previous turning points in the video-game industry. . . . You're not going to see any giant technological advance in this generation."

Instead of radically expanded graphics, expect the next Xbox to let players buy more downloadable content, said P.J. McNealy, an analyst at American Technology Research.

"This is more an Xbox 1.5 than an Xbox 2," he said. "It's like an Xbox with a broadband cash register built in."

As a result of such sentiment, some analysts voiced skepticism this week about whether the video-game market is ready for a new game console this holiday season.

"I wonder if there's going to be enough time to get consumers really excited," said Michael Pachter, analyst at Wedbush Morgan.

Analyst Schelley Olhava of research firm IDC said much the same, noting that the Xbox game Halo 2 is one of the best-selling games in the country, and the game came out only last year after extended delays.

"I question whether Microsoft might be coming out too soon with the next Xbox," Olhava said.